Didi’s long march


Mamata Banerjee’s cry for paribartan hit a chord.  Ashok Malik details the aspirations and mistakes that made people shift Ashok Malikallegiance

Photo: Pintu Pradhan

SHE’S BEEN waiting for this weekend for 27 years, since that December day in 1984 when she defeated Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur, on the southern fringes of Kolkata, snatched one of the CPM’s safest seats in West Bengal and showed the lion could be slain. Since then Mamata Banerjee has dreamt of bigger things, of removing the Left Front government and coming to power in the state. Finally, it’s all happening.

What explains this Mamata surge and what is the Bengal she will inherit? What are her plans for it? To see her victory as merely a consequence of Singur and Nandigram and the land acquisition protests would be to see only half the story. Certainly, Singur and the protest and fast against the handing over of lush farmland, just off a highway, to Tata Motors galvanised the Trinamool Congress. Yet, if she is winning today, there is more to it.

Mamata has come to represent the mood for change — paribartan, the Bangla word for change, is the refrain of the state’s election season — in a society tired of three decades of CPM sameness and smugness. Ironically, some of the aspirations and urges for change that she has exploited were triggered by the man she has painted as Bengal’s anti-hero, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the outgoing chief minister.

IN 2006, Bhattacharjee won a massive mandate positing himself against his own party. He talked of a business-friendly climate, of responding to the dreams of Bengal’s youth, of investing in the rebuilding of Kolkata — with a flurry of flyovers for instance. In short, he pointed to a kinder, gentler CPM. All of this ran counter to the sullen, socially intrusive identity the party had given itself. With Singur, it became clear the CPM could only allow cosmetic change.

Riot act the agitations at Singur and Nandigram gave Trinamool Congress the rural push
Photos: Shailendra Pandey, AP


As a result, Bhattacharjee leaves Writers’ Buildings, the seat of the government, a broken man, someone with all the right ideas and intent but spectacularly poor implementation skills. In many respects, Mamata’s success as chief minister will depend on her ability to borrow Buddha’s agenda, but without his angularities.

Even so, that is getting ahead of the story. Why did Bengal vote the way it did? What are Mamata’s plans? To understand that, one has to see the state through the prism of its polity, society and economy. She has captured the first, charmed the second. The third will decide her future.

Consider the politics first. In a sense, the Left Front’s defeat was foretold when it was crippled in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, with the Trinamool and the Congress winning 26 of the state’s 42 seats. Before and after that game-changing verdict, section after section, social constituency after constituency moved to the Trinamool.

The predominantly left-wing intelligentsia — which blames Bhattacharjee for revisionism — was the first to defect. The role of this intelligentsia — the “cultural icons” of the party, as one Mamata aide puts it — needs to be understood. Outside West Bengal’s ostrich-headed world, it will make no sense to anybody why a potential chief minister needs to court an army of playwrights and poets or why her party’s manifesto has to specifically promise “revival of the great traditions of Bengal — literature, films, theatre, poetry, music, paintings… These were the main components of the renaissance of West Bengal at one point of history”. In middle-class Bengal, this has given Trinamool the respectability it has craved for years and allowed it to overcome its street-fighter and sometimes lumpen image.

Indeed, so strong is Mamata’s desire to identify with the so-called cultural icons that her party has actually announced plans to take over and run, at government expense, a series of old and decaying theatres in the city. The model is an old theatre near Mamata’s house in south Kolkata’s Kalighat area that has been taken over by the city municipal corporation (run by Trinamool since 2010) and renamed after late movie star Uttam Kumar.

It doesn’t stop there. Mamata actively sought to make candidates of her cultural mascots. A talented young — he’s in his early 40s — playwright and actor Bratya Basu was given the ticket from Dum Dum and asked to keep the CPM candidate, Housing Minister Gautam Deb, bottled up. The contest became critical, given Deb has positioned himself as Bhattacharjee’s possible replacement. On his part, Basu — described by a Trinamool colleague as “ideologically left of the Left” — is already spoken of as a future Trinamool culture czar.

So determined is Mamata to incorporate and appropriate the “cultural icons” that, should she win the required twothirds mandate, she is certain to revive the West Bengal legislative council and hand out legislative nominations to more and more of her new followers.

The winning over of the cultural figures was important for Mamata as a brandbuilding exercise. Hitherto, her party had been limited to suburban and small-town south Bengal, a natural habitat of families of former industrial workers in the rust belt on Kolkata’s periphery, unemployed youth and working-class folk elbowed out of the Left’s patronage network. The big thrust into rural Bengal came with Singur and then Nandigram, where the CPM tried to displace a community of Muslim settlers (many of them squatters who had been put there by the Communists in the first place) and free the land for a chemicals facility.

Nandigram, combined with the death of Rizwanur Rahman — a young Muslim in Kolkata, forced into suicide after police harassment, allegedly on behalf of his Hindu father-in-law who was unhappy with the wedding — gave Trinamool identifiable and emotional causes with which to appeal to Muslim voters. The results have been apparent. As a CPM leader admits, “In south Bengal, particularly in Kolkata and the nearby districts, we have lost the Muslim vote entirely.”

Muslims are not sufficient to win West Bengal but, at 30 percent of the electorate, they are necessary. Travelling through south Bengal, it is noticeable that Trinamool has successfully demoniseh Bhattacharjee and somehow depicted him as a man Muslims can’t trust. As a Trinamool functionary puts it, “Muslims don’t mind the CPM, but they have decided to vote against Buddha.”

The situation is reminiscent of the Congress in the mid-1990s, after the Ayodhya demolition. The north Indian Muslim still longed for the Congress but his distrust of PV Narasimha Rao was absolute. It took Rao’s defeat and the installation of a new generation of Nehru-Gandhis for the Congress to regain the Muslim vote. As such, the CPM’s post-poll outreach to the Muslim voter can only begin after it has sacked Bhattacharjee as party leader.

One has to see Bengal through the prism of its polity, society and economy. Didi has captured the first and charmed the second. The third will decide her future

As defeatism gripped the Left, the pillars of its ‘command and control’ mechanism began to give way. For one, as a high-profile Trinamool candidate admitted, Kolkata businessmen — predominantly Marwari, with a sprinkling of Gujaratis and Punjabis — had been more generous with Mamata’s party than the Communists. “In my seat,” said this Trinamool aspirant, “I needed to pay off even local councillors, irrespective of party affiliation, to ensure my posters and wall graffiti went up. The demands were high, and I found the CPM was not able to match the bids.”

“I sensed we were in trouble,” said a former Calcutta University professor who has been a long-time CPM insider, “when the newspaper hawker and autorickshaw unions turned. They have gone over to Trinamool.” Why was the switchover of the newspaper hawker and autorickshaw driver syndicates in Kolkata and its hinterland towns so significant?

To answer that is to get an insight into the CPM’s patronage edifice, assiduously built over 34 years in power. West Bengal is not a Communist economy and not a pure market economy; rather, it is a CPMregulated market economy. How has this worked? Let’s say eight autos line up every day and ply a regular — regular as decided by the party, not by the traffic police — route from location X to location Y. The local party official maintains a logbook of the autorickshaw drivers and their trips each day. They have to be back within an allocated time — that which it reasonably takes to go from X to Y and come back. If an auto driver takes longer on a particular round, he has to explain himself and is charged with deviating from the ‘permitted route’ and taking extra passengers.

There is also an equalisation policy. If one driver is 25 years old and fit and another is 55 and tiring, the younger man cannot take advantage of his age and do extra rounds and make more money. He can do only as many rounds as the other drivers and must come back to the end of the queue at the conclusion of a roundtrip. This is how the party ensures parity, and reins in the animal instincts of free competition. The formula is the same for newspaper hawkers, who can deliver only to a fixed number of houses, irrespective of their physical stamina and capability.

“I have seen some of these logbooks,” says the retired professor, “they are meticulously maintained. The driver or hawker is required to give a part of his income to the party as protection money. In return, the party ensures parity between him and his peers. Should he fall ill and miss some days of work, the party gives him a stipend, from the protection money he has paid.” It’s a self-contained bubble. Today, it has crossed over entirely to the Trinamool.

The unions and syndicates are the base of the CPM’s authority and also pay for it to run itself, especially at the neighbourhood level. They give its mid-rung leaders influence and create captive vote banks. “It’s a very good, very useful party structure,” says the CPM-affiliated academic, “I wonder what Trinamool will do with it? If it has any sense, it will simply retain it as it is.”

NEVERTHELESS, THERE is an economy beyond the CPM’s loose-change framework. West Bengal was once India’s industrial hegemon. Among the first steel plants and light-engineering units opened here in the early 20th century. As technology overtook it from the 1960s, it needed to make that transformation to a post-industrial economy. It should have been a natural for the services sector.

This was not to be. The IT facilities and BPOs opened in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, with Kolkata as an also-ran. A perverse opposition to technology and computerisation and, in the early 1980s, the removal of English from government primary schools — an astonishingly regressive act that deprived two generations of Bengalis of a comparative advantage — meant the CPM did not let this happen. Broadly, this is something Kolkata and whole regiments of exiles from that city have never forgiven the CPM and especially Jyoti Basu — chief minister from 1977 to 2000 — for.

Brain gain The likes of Bratya Basu (fourth from right) has helped Mamata win over the intellectuals
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Trinamool has used this record to critique the Left. As its manifesto points out, “In 1975-76, the share of manufacturing sector in the state’s economy was 19 percent. By 2008-09, this had fallen to a mere 7.4 percent.” In Gujarat, in contrast, it has grown from 19 percent to 29.6 percent. Mamata has blamed the CPM for “consistent deindustrialisation in the state”.

The real problem has been West Bengal’s inability to capitalise on the opportunities of the past decade. There have been three Five-Year Plan periods since India began to liberalise in 1991. The first two — the Eighth Plan (1992-97) and Ninth Plan (1997-02) — had West Bengal’s state domestic product (SDP) growing at, respectively, rates just below and well above India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The Tenth Plan (2002-07) saw India jump orbits. The GDP grew at 7.7 percent. Bengal faltered. Against a target of 8.8 percent, it grew only 6.1 percent.

The Tenth Plan period coincided with the bulk of Bhattacharjee’s tenure. In a sense, he was paying for the mess he had inherited. Nevertheless, in politics as in agriculture, he who reaps is more famous (or infamous) than he who sows.

The diminution of Kolkata is a sample of Bengal’s decline. In 1951, the city supported 10.3 percent of the state’s population. Today, the figure is a little more than 5 percent. No other capital can report such a sharp decline. After the delimitation of seats, Kolkata has been left with 11 Assembly constituencies. In 2006, it had 21. This is a reflection of the shrinking of its population vis-à-vis the rest of Bengal.

In 2009, economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari published a report on West Bengal called A Story of Falling Behind. It studied the stagnation of Kolkata port, once the country’s interface with the global economy. The Tenth Plan target for the port, the report said, was one of handling 21.4 million metric tonnes of cargo per year. In 2002-03, it handled 7.2 million metric tonnes and in 2006-07, 12.6 million metric tonnes. By 2009-10, this had gone up marginally to 13 million metric tonnes.

Though governed by a party dedicated to egalitarianism, Bengal is also fundamentally an unequal society. As Mamata points out in her meetings, only 16 percent of hospitals are run by the government and merely a fourth of public hospitals are in rural areas, where 72 percent of the people live.

The backing of the intelligentsia gives Trinamool the respectability it has craved for and has helped it to overcome its street-fighter and lumpen image

The crisis in rural health infrastructure is not unique to Bengal. Nevertheless, the CPM has actively discouraged urbanisation and a top-down economic model, arguing it preferred a focus on villages. Despite this, it has not delivered on rural health and social indices.

Particularly badly off are western districts such as Purulia and Bankura. Uttar Dinajpur, West Bengal’s poorest district, has a per capita SDP a third of Kolkata’s. According to an Indian Statistical Institute study, 56 percent of Murshidabad lives in poverty, including a full 1.47 percent of India’s rural poor. Bengal has only 18 of India’s 600-odd districts, but 14 of India’s poorest 100 districts.

TO BE fair to Bhattacharjee, he sensed the stagnation of Bengal. In 2006, he promised a new deal, much like Mamata’s paribartan commitment five years later. For a short period, the euphoria lasted. Tata Motors agreed to invest but only after, as a Kolkata businessman stresses, a sweetheart land deal: “Let’s face it, unless Buddha gave the Tatas prime land, just off the highway and with the potential of building a township for its executives, they wouldn’t have come. Nobody would have come. West Bengal’s stock was rock bottom.”

Another indicator is Kolkata’s luxury hotel industry. For years, the city had no five-star facility other than the venerable Oberoi Grand. In the 1980s, the Taj Bengal opened and in the early 2000s, in quick succession the ITC Sonar and the Hyatt.

One has to put that boom in context. The ITC Sonar has 300 rooms and is the largest hotel in the city, but it is smaller than new ITC properties in Mumbai and Bengaluru. The Oberoi has over 300 rooms but about 100 are shut because there’s not enough business potential! This is an indulgence no hotel in Delhi or Mumbai would be allowed.

In the honeymoon after the 2006 election, ITC firmed up plans for a second, 500- room hotel, while JWMarriott is building an 800-room monster nearby. Together, these will double the luxury hotel room capacity in Kolkata. Is there a market? “The plans are too far gone to step back,” says an ITC Hotels official, “there was hope of a business revival in 2006. There’s caution now. But let’s see.”

So who goes to these hotels? Marwari weddings provide a big client base. “There are walk-in diners,” says a hotel executive, “young BPO kids with money to spare. Or older middle-class people, who would never have thought of eating at a five-star restaurant, but do so once in a while on the basis of remittances of children living outside Bengal and earning well.”

Mamata realises business needs a tonic. Yet, there are things she can do and can’t do. She can’t allow land acquisitions in the manner of Bhattacharjee and will probably work towards returning 400 acres in Singur to farmers who didn’t want to sell. “The Tatas can have the other 600 acres of undisputed land,” says a Trinamool spokesman, “and set up their factory there.”

SHE ALSO talks of encouragement to small and medium industry as well as to handicrafts and apparel and garments units. These will help only up to a point. There is a realisation that big industry will not come in a hurry, not because of Trinamool but because Bengal is so off the map. “Didi will probably keep the commerce and industry portfolio with herself,” says a party insider, “and make Amit Mitra finance minister.” The lady is keen to score symbolic victories and get fresh investment from one of the big IT companies — say an Infosys or a Wipro — in the first six months. The infrastructure for this is in place. In Rajarhat, close to Kolkata’s airport, Bhattacharjee had incubated a ‘New Town’, with high-rises and wide roads that carry the sobriquet of ‘Kolkata’s Gurgaon’.

Hard times Amit Mitra will have the tough job of fixing the ailing economy of West Bengal
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Mamata hopes to both discredit the CPM’s Rajarhat project and benefit from the development of urban infrastructure. She has promised an inquiry into the ‘Rajarhat scam’ and the allotment of farmland plots to CPM-friendly property developers and businessmen at concessional rates. “Some 600 plots were allotted a day before the election dates were announced,” says a Trinamool official. His leader is targeting the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, which parcelled out land in Rajarhat, and its supervising minister, Gautam Deb.

Rajarhat may be in for hard times and property prices there may soften, but Kolkata and its two neighbouring districts of North and South 24 Parganas remain crucial for Mamata. This is Trinamool’s southern Bengal fortress. Together, these districts have 75 seats and it is conceivable Trinamool could win 90 percent of them.

As railway minister, Mamata has inaugurated 19 projects in West Bengal and half of them are in these three districts. Making it easier for small-town and district residents to commute to Kolkata for work, enhancing suburban rail links, expanding the Metro Rail network and augmenting connectivity and related infrastructure are her key proposals. She hopes this will kick off economic activity, in a classic Keynesian, public spending driven manner.

PERHAPS, MORE than anything else, Mamata takes charge of a people who have lost faith in themselves. For all their achievements outside the state, Bengalis in Bengal often wear the hard, woebegone demeanour of a defeated society. “What Bengal needs,” says a Mamata aide, “is a psychological confidence booster.” A state that has become a great place to get out of has to provide enough opportunity and optimism to give young people the option of staying back.

Didi knows business needs a tonic. Yet, there are things she can do and can’t do. She can’t allow land acquisitions in the manner of what the Communist CM did

Unable to reconcile its glorious heritage with its sorry present, Bengal has a unique multiple-personality disorder. It is so torn between an imperial past that it refuses to get over and a defensive regional identity that has grown since the mid-1970s — and been nurtured by the CPM — that it almost refuses to see itself in the same league as contemporary India.

The CPM is not a regional party in the conventional sense of the term but, over 30 years, it has adroitly exploited a sense of grievance and Bengali exceptionalism. Can Bengal press the reset button?

To test out this theory, turn to the one institution middle-class Bengal truly worships: the school. Most of the state’s schools are affiliated to the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. This board and the entire system of school education it runs has been a source of patronage and political clout for the Left, in a manner that cannot easily be fathomed by an absolute outsider.

Rather than an overarching education minister — an innovation Mamata is keen on, in a possibly small Cabinet should she come to power — the CPM has broken up the education portfolio into four and has a separate minister for school education. Students from state-run board schools are often recipients of positive discrimination when it comes to applying to local colleges. A belief — even myth — has been promoted that they are inherently superior.

Candidates sitting the entrance examination for Bengal’s medical and engineering colleges are advantaged if they have a state school board background. The syllabus of the one feeds into the demands of the other.

In academic year 2011-12, something quite dramatic has happened. With 15,000 pupils, several shifts and an academic rigour that is almost scary, South Point is Kolkata’s leading West Bengal board school. It has produced toppers and has been the school of choice for the middle class for seemingly decades.

Now, South Point has announced it is offering pupils the option of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). As one parent explains, “The West Bengal board is fine if you want to apply to engineering colleges in the state. But for getting into colleges in other parts of India, familiarity with the CBSE curriculum helps.”

The decision has sent shockwaves. South Point is usually a trendsetter; other schools could follow. The pressure and demand from South Point’s parent community is revelatory. There is less and less confidence in West Bengal, its institutions and its job prospects. Parents want their children’s school to facilitate an easier exit from the state. At the most basic level, this is a vote against the status quo.

See where it’s left the Left.



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